Get Street-Wise About Supplements

Going to the drugstore lately can feel a little like a trip to the candy shop, with dozens and dozens of colorful vitamin and mineral supplements to choose from. Can’t you just sample a little bit of everything?

If you’re considering a supplement, heed some familiar advice: Choose wisely and carefully. Filling up on this type of "candy" can do more harm than good.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are so popular that you can buy them just about anywhere—the drugstore, grocery store, mall, the internet and through home-based distributors. But do you really need them? Will they improve your health? Are they safe? How can you avoid being ripped off?

Food Is Still Best

Before you clear a medicine cabinet shelf to stock up on supplements, remember this truth: Food is still the best option for getting the nutrients you need for healthy living. A balanced multivitamin supplement is second-best and is usually safe. Beyond that, individual nutrient supplements should only be chosen in special cases.

It is true that vitamins and minerals are essential in regulating various body activities. These nutrients do not function alone, but work together with other nutrients. The best source of vitamins and minerals is food. Food provides the complete package. A balanced diet already contains the correct nutrients in just the right amounts. Individual foods also provide hundreds of other substances such as phytochemicals, zoochemicals and antioxidants that help to prevent disease and boost the immune system.

Who Needs a Supplement?

The decision to take a supplement should not be made haphazardly. It is best to seek advice from your physician or consult with a registered dietitian. This health professional should assess your dietary habits and intake, medical status, medication history, alcohol intake and lifestyle habits. Some people who may need to take a multivitamin-mineral supplement include:
  • People with digestive diseases, illnesses or surgeries that can interfere with the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women (increased need for iron, folic acid and calcium)
  • Vegetarians who avoid all animal foods and may have a deficit of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, calcium, zinc and iron
  • People who smoke (smoking increases the need for vitamin C)
  • People with certain major illnesses or injuries that can increase the need for healing nutrients
  • Women with heavy menstrual bleeding (may need more iron)
  • Menopausal women (might benefit from calcium)
  • Women who are trying to conceive (preconception warrants an increase in folic acid to decrease the risk of certain birth defects)
  • People taking certain medications that can increase or decrease the effectiveness of vitamins and minerals
  • People following weight loss programs that severely restrict food intake or calorie levels (less than 1000-1200 calories per day), which can result in poor nutrient intake
  • People with food allergies that require avoiding groups of foods and may result in nutritional deficiencies
  • People who abuse alcohol (increases nutrient needs)

Becoming Supplement Savvy 

Do not fall into the dangerous trap of thinking that if a little is good, more is better. Excessive intake of vitamins and minerals can do no good. It is a waste of money. And in some cases, excessive intake can damage the body, have a toxic effect, interfere with medications and may even result in death. To choose a safe, effective vitamin-mineral supplement, follow these tips:
  • Choose a balanced multivitamin-mineral supplement rather than one or two specific nutrients, unless it has been medically prescribed.
  • Choose a supplement that provides close to 100-150 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for recognized nutrients. The exceptions to this are calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. If the supplement did contain 100 percent DV of these nutrients, it would be too large to swallow. Due to the cost, biotin is also often less than 100 percent of the DV. However, the need for supplemental biotin is rare.
  • Look for the "USP" insignia on the label. This ensures that the supplement meets the standards for strength, purity, disintegration and dissolution established by the testing organization, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
  • Read the supplement label carefully. Follow serving size recommendations.
  • Avoid supplements that contain unrecognized nutrients and substances. A number of substances like PABA, inositol, bee pollen and lecithin have never been shown to be essential to humans. They do nothing but boost the price.
  • Beware of gimmicks. Synthetic supplements that are made in a laboratory are usually the same as so-called "natural" supplements. The body knows no difference, but your wallet does. "Natural" supplements cost more.
  • Do not give in to the temptation of added herbs, enzymes or amino acids. This only adds to the cost.
  • Avoid supplements that claim to be therapeutic, high-potency or de-stressing. This adds cost with no additional benefits.
  • Choose a supplement with an expiration date on the container. Vitamins can lose potency over time, especially in hot and humid climates. Follow storage advice. Supplements should be kept in a cool, dry place with a tight-fitting lid.
  • Keep supplements in a locked cabinet away from children. Don’t leave them on the counter or rely on child-resistant packaging. Be especially careful with any supplements that contain iron. Iron overdose is a leading cause of poisoning deaths among children.
Bottom Line: A poor diet plus supplements is still a poor diet. Food remains your best source of vitamins and minerals. Spend a little more time and money on delicious, tasty meals and snacks to meet your nutritional needs. And remember, a supplement is just that…a little extra in addition to wise food choices. This little extra poses no danger and may be helpful at times, if chosen wisely.